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Energy and Optimism at the General Assembly

By Stacey Dresner

The recent presidential election and engaging the younger generation are just a couple of the topics that were discussed at the General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).

From Nov. 13-15 — less than a week after the election of Donald Trump as president — 3,000 representatives from Jewish organizations around the United States, Canada and Israel attended the conference, held in Washington, D.C.

The speakers included The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, just to name a few.

From left, to right, JFCM Governing Board Member Barbara Rossman, Steven Schimmel, JFCM executive director; and Toby Richmond, JFCM president at the GA.

“I have attended many General Assemblies, going back to 2008,” said Steven Schimmel, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Mass. “The GA is, of course, an opportunity to hear about the new programs that JFNA is engaged in, different areas of the global Jewish world that are receiving funding support from the Federation and an update on the important stories affecting Jewish life at home, in Israel, and in other countries around the globe. Hearing from the headline speakers is a nice treat and a unique GA experience. This year we heard from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a number of journalists who gave insight into the recent Presidential election.”

“The GA was actually very exciting this year,” said Suze Goldman, president of the Jewish Federation of Western Mass. “We are kind of into a new age in the organized Jewish community of inclusion, from my perspective. There is a push to involve younger people. There was much more conscious acknowledgement of the need to think with an eye toward youth and inclusion of all Jews….JFNA is really taking a greater posture of open tent.”

Toby Richmond, president of the Jewish Federation of Central Mass., remarked on that emphasis on attracting Milleniels.

“I think the best thing about the GA is that when you go there you get the wonderful feeling that the Jewish Federation will live on and on,” she said. “Here in Central Mass. and in Western Mass…we are all getting a little older. But at the GA they made the announcement that there were 950 people there under the age of 45. It was incredible.”

This was the first GA Robert Marmor, interim executive director of the Jewish Federation of Western Mass. has been to in 15 years.

“This GA of 3000 Jewish professionals and volunteers, of which a third were under the age of 45, was really a vibrant, interesting and exciting conference,” Marmor said.

This year Debbie Rubenstein, director of Rachel’s Table, led two FEDovation sessions, “Empowering the Next Generation of Leaders.”

Rubenstein spoke to a group of people all concerned about about reaching Millennials – those born between the early 1980s and 2000 — and the generation that follows.

“I talked about how the Teen Board came to be, how it grew and what it does, and how it is an extension of Rachel’s Table and how it really targets this Millennial generation,” Rubenstein said. “Many communities are doing Young Adult programs, but a few communities approached me about how to work with teens.”

Responding to Millenials was a big topic at the GA.

Suze Goldman, president of the Jewish Federation of Western Mass., Robert Marmor, interim executive director and Rachel Berezin, campaign director at the GA.

“There was this acknowledgment that we need to look more carefully at what our next generations are needing and wanting,” Goldman said. “They think differently, they affiliate differently, and we need to respond accordingly.”

Richmond said she aims to bring a whole crew of younger Jews from Worcester to next year’s GA.

Schimmel agreed. “These speakers, particularly Justice Ginsburg, were major attractions for many of the attendees including the nearly 1,000 young people who attended from various universities. For those who don’t know, ‘Notorious RBG’ — Ruth Bader Ginsburg — has a celebrity status among the Millennials.”

Toby Richmond said she was surrounded by Hillel students at the GA. “It is wonderful to see the young people involved in Federation. Next year I am going to really try to get our Hillel students to go to the GA along with the director, and try to involve the younger people more in Federation.”

Henia Lewin of Amherst attended the GA as part of the 25th anniversary of the JFNA’s Covenant Award for Jewish educators. Lewin was a Covenant Award winner in 1997. This was her first GA.

“I got to hear some incredible people,” Lewin said. “Rabbi Sacks was amazing. He gave this positive speech about hope, which is part of our tradition. He said that we have weathered many crises over our centuries of Jewish history and we will overcome. It is part of our national anthem, Hatikvah, to hope. It was a very inspring message.”

Lewin also enjoyed the talk by Natan Sharansky, director of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who was joined on stage by 500 of the Israeli shlichim who work around North America.

On the final day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared live via satellite for a short interview.

Regarding the Israeli government’s passage of legislation that authorizes egalitarian prayer at the wall, he said, “we are working with the parties, we stand ready to work a little more… This is one instance where I think we need quiet diplomacy between Jews and Jews.”

He added that he looked “forward also to working with President-elect Trump when he becomes president and his administration to further the twin interests of peace and security.”

While getting to hear from great speakers is indeed a treat, the new ideas and connections Federation representatives make at the GA is invaluable.

“For me, the GA also offers an opportunity to meet with colleagues, other Federation Directors and Presidents who are facing similar challenges and opportunities to what we see in our community,” Schimmel said. “The GA is really the only event like this, where these important interactions take place. I also come home from every GA with new ideas and with a newfound inspiration, energy and optimism about the Federation movement. On a daily basis in our offices in Worcester we hear and see the needs of the community, the GA gives us a chance to see that we are not alone and that others are working on the same challenges we are.”

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